On May 18, 1952, singer, actor, athlete, scholar, and political activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976) performs an outdoor concert for more than 25,000 people (estimates range as high as 45,000) gathered on both sides of the United States/Canadian border at Peace Arch Park in Blaine. An outspoken supporter of civil rights worldwide and an admirer of the Soviet Union, where he perceives there to be no racism, Robeson has been increasingly persecuted for his political views since the late 1940s. His passport has been confiscated by the State Department, denying his right to travel and perform outside of the United States, and he has recently even been prevented from crossing the border to Canada, which at the time does not require United States citizens to show a passport.
Robeson's father, William Drew Robeson, was born in slavery, escaped at age 15, made his way north on the Underground Railroad, and eventually became a minister. His mother, Maria Louisa (Bustill) Robeson, a schoolteacher before her marriage, died when Paul was five. Robeson's commanding baritone was initially nurtured in church choirs. His first public success was not as a performer, however, but as an athlete at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he was the school's first black football player, made the All American team twice, and earned 15 varsity letters. Robeson attended Rutgers on a four-year academic scholarship and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year. He then earned a law degree from Columbia University. Although he was hired by a white law firm, the inherent racism of the time made it impossible for him to practice law there -- the firm's white clients refused to allow a black man to represent them.
While at Columbia University, Robeson began singing in nightclubs, and in 1922 he made his Broadway debut. Immediately successful on the stage and soon on screen, Robeson was also in great demand as a concert performer. His performances popularized Negro spirituals to the (white) masses for the first time. Robeson's concert career gave him the chance to travel extensively and observe life in many countries. Long aligned with the struggle of the downtrodden workers world-wide, and especially with the plight of black Africans and African Americans, Robeson found in Socialism a potent contrast to the American racist society in which he functioned. He identified himself as an anti-fascist. He spoke favorably about his personal experiences in the USSR and of Soviet leaders, but he was never a member of the American Communist party.
By the early 1950s Robeson was experiencing increasing difficulty booking concert venues in the United States. His performances were boycotted by many, and those fans who did buy tickets were harassed. In 1950 the State Department demanded that Robeson surrender his passport unless he signed an affidavit denying that he was a Communist. He refused. His passport was confiscated and he began a civil legal challenge against the State Department. Unable to travel outside of the United States to perform abroad, and selling ever-fewer tickets within the country, Robeson's earnings plunged.
On January 31, 1952 Robeson and Vincent William Halliman, an attorney for labor leader Harry Bridges, were prevented from crossing the border into Canada. They had been en route (Robeson by car and Halliman by train) to address a meeting of the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Union in Vancouver, British Columbia. This prohibition went beyond the issue of Robeson's confiscated passport: At the time American citizens were not required to carry passports to cross the border into Canada. Paul Robeson addressed the meeting by telephone from Seattle, but the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Worker's Union began plans for a concert at Peace Arch Park on the international border so that members could hear the great baritone singer in person despite the fact that he was virtually being held prisoner within the United States. The Peace Arch had been erected by Samuel Hill (1857-1931) in 1921 to celebrate the long-running peace between Canada and the United States. Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers regional director Harvey Murphy chaired Paul Robeson's Peace Arch concert.
A Sea of Listeners
The weather was unseasonably warm for mid-May in the Pacific Northwest. The previous day's high temperature in Seattle was reported as having been a record-setting 81 degrees. The crowd at the Peace Arch was variously estimated at 25,000 to 30,000 to as high as 45,000 people. Border officials briefly closed the crossing in attempt to clear through some of the backlogged cars. About three-fourths of the crowd gathered on Canadian soil and one-fourth on the United States side of the border. The crowd sang "O Canada" and "The Star Spangled Banner." The Canadian B.C. District News (a publication of the Union Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers) described the scene:
"Long before the announced opening the grass of the park was flowered with gay summer dresses of the women and children, and cars were parked for miles back along the highway and on all the cross-roads adjacent to the border. How many autos turned back out of the traffic jam, discouraged at the slowness of progress from 1:30 p.m. onwards, will never be known, but they reached the hundreds. When Robeson arrived at 2:30, fully 30,000 had assembled...the great singer's vibrant voice betrayed his emotion when he told his audience, 'I can't tell you how moved I am today to see that nothing can keep me from my friends in Canada!' ... He sang in English, songs of peace in Russian and Chinese, songs of liberty in a tongue of the African villages, where his own people are now struggling to cast off the heel of their white exploiters" ("Paul Robeson Enthralled ...").
Lawrence Brown accompanied Robeson on piano. The stage was a temporary platform mounted on the back of a truck.
I Must Keep Fighting
Among Robeson's 15 selections were some perennial favorites in a lighter vein ("Loch Lomond," "Love Will Find Out The Way," and "Oh No, John"), spirituals and songs protesting racial oppression ("Water Boy," "Ev'ry Time I Feel The Spirit," and "No More Auction Block"), and the famous labor song "Joe Hill," which provoked loud cheers from the union-friendly crowd. Robeson also performed a passage from Othello, most likely Othello's final speech beginning "Soft you, a word or two before you go," which he frequently included in his recitals.
Robeson concluded with "Ol' Man River," the show-stopper he had performed on stage and screen in the Oscar Hammerstein II/Jerome Kern musical Showboat. In Showboat "Ol' Man River" is sung by the character of Joe, a broadly drawn Negro retainer who works a theatrical showboat on the Mississippi River in the 1880s. Paul Robeson and "Ol' Man River" became indelibly linked, and the song was his usual concert finale. As had become his policy when singing this number in recital, Robeson altered the lyrics to emphasize struggle rather than oppression. The original version of the song's final verse, for example, ran "Ah gits weary/ An sick of tryin'/ Ah'm tired of livin'/ and scared of dyin'/ But Ol' Man River/ He jes' keeps rollin' along!" Robeson's version of the same verse as performed at the Peace Arch ran "I keeps laughin'/ Instead of cryin'/ I must keep fightin'/ Until I'm dyin'/ And Ol' Man River/ He'll just keep rollin' along!" (Paul Robeson: The Political Years, track 20).
A Fervent Crowd
Despite the racially and politically charged struggle in which Robeson was engaged at the time of this concert, the event was unmarred by violence. The B.C. District Union News reported:
"The press and radio and television news services were out in force. Hoodlums in Bellingham had threatened disruption, and the newsmen were there hoping for another Peekskill. But if the racist scum came, they were overawed completely by the size and fervor of the crowd, and the news-hawks were disappointed. However, having their equipment there, the result was that the program was radioed and televised to many millions throughout the States and Canada" ("Paul Robeson Enthralled...").
On August 27, 1949 Robeson's planned concert at Peekskill, New York had erupted into violence when upon arrival he was met with an angry mob of brawling protestors.
As Robeson's domestic arrest continued, he gave three more concerts at the Peace Arch, in 1953, 1954, and 1955. In 1956 he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In June of 1958, after the Supreme Court ruled in another case that the Secretary of State could not withhold the passport of a United States Citizen because of their political beliefs, Robeson's passport was restored. He retired from public life in 1961 and died in 1976.